Grade: Ω— An excellent book that may appeal more to people who do not normally read the genre than those who are aficionados of it.
This award winning best-seller breaks the mold of modern fantasy. It is a mock history of an alternate Georgian England where magic exists, and indeed re-emerges through the course of the tale. It is a brilliantly told tale that perfectly mimics the stylistic nature of the histories of that period and incorporates a magic system that also matches Georgian concepts of faeries and the supernatural. The language may put off those who want a tale told in modern style, but for me is the best part of the whole book and what makes it stand apart.
England (and other bits of the world), 1806 to 1817
At the end of the Enlightenment, numerous ‘Magical’ societies exist amongst the intellectuals and clergy of middle England,[i] but none of them actually practice magic. Instead, they focus on the historical and philosophical elements of such thaumaturgy. Then, in one of the rural societies an odd little man called Mr. Norrell turns up who declares that he actually practices spell casting and notes his desire to return it to the center of such local studies.
Initially rejected by these societies, Mr. Norrell goes into Georgian society and begins to practice his magical arts. Before long, he attracts the attention of upper class society and before long a young protégée appears.[ii] Eventually, philosophical differences develop between the two and conflict arises as each becomes more entrenched in their own views.
Having read hundreds of local histories (literally) of this period, I found this book a delightful, amusing and refreshing read. The footnotes are particularly amusing, and are as important to the plot as the main text. Indeed, many of them stand as a short story in their own right. The tale is filled with elements of magic appropriate to the early 19th century, including a concept of elves and faeries that matches the dark views of the supernatural world that predate Tolkienism, Disneyesque sanitization, and New Age PC fairy tales.
You’ll see no Legolas or Fairy Godmothers here, but you will see a wonderful and historically more appropriate concept of magic. You will also see a wonderful story told in an imaginative and exciting way.
[i] Intellectual societies were very common in Britain and the continent at the time, and ranged in interest in everything from arts, archaeology, antiquarianism, biology, literature, astronomy, and other emerging sciences and studies. They were normally populated with middle class or lower upper class individuals, frequently of a clerical bent, who were, or at least viewed themselves as intellectuals.